Serbia’s President Tomislav Nikolic has named billionaire Gennady Nikolayevich Timchenko, a friend and close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, honorary consul-general at the Serbian consulate in St. Petersburg which opened on October 12. Since Timchenko is on the US sanctions list, the move is expected to complicate Serbia’s standing in the west.
Belgrade has sought to balance its relations with the west and Russia as it progresses towards EU accession. While EU membership is Serbia’s primary goal, the country also wants to maintain positive relations with Russia. This partly stems from the two countries’ shared religion and the Russian role in the liberation of Belgrade in the Second World War. However, Russia also has leverage in Belgrade because of its role as the country’s gas supplier and its refusal to recognise Kosovo as an independent state.
Nikolic said in St. Petersburg on October 12 that Serbia will be “eternally grateful” to Russia and above all to Putin, for the sincere support for the preservation of its territorial integrity - a reference to the Kosovo issue, Tanjug reported.
"Your name continues the bright tradition of Serbian-Russian diplomatic relations," Nikolic told Timchenko.
Timchenko thanked Nikolic for giving him the post, saying he “would be glad to help both Serbia and Russia in finding new ways to develop our relationship,” AP reported.
Timchenko, Putin’s former judo partner, has lived in Switzerland and has dual Russian-Finnish nationality, according to AP. His personal wealth is estimated at around $7.6bn, earned mostly in the energy sector. He has been probed in the US in an alleged money-laundering scheme.
Nikolic also favours the Russian president, according to AP. Indeed, Nikolic has publicly spoken out on the friendship between Serbia and “mother Russia”, though at the same time he also supports Serbia’s EU integration.
On the same day, Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic received US Ambassador to Serbia Kyle Scott in Belgrade.
A Serbian government statement reads that the officials said their countries' bilateral relations are on an upward trajectory, as confirmed by US Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Serbia in August as well as by Vucic's meetings with US officials during the 71st UN General Assembly meeting in New York in September. US has publicly supported Serbia’s EU progress.
Scott told Vucic that an increasing number of US companies are interested in investing in Serbia.
Serbia opened its first two EU negotiation chapters on December 14, 2015, and opened two more in July. It hopes to open at least two more by the end of 2016 and eventually join the union by 2020.
EU member countries accounted for 64.6% of Serbia’s total external trade through August 2016.
Russia is Serbia’s fifth most important export destination. In 2000 the two countries signed a free trade agreement, which states that goods produced in Serbia which have at least 51% value added in the country are considered to be of Serbian origin and can be exported to the Russian Federation duty free. The agreement is one of the main reasons why Serbia has refused to impose sanctions against Russia, a potential obstacle on its EU path.
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